Gunpowder, Treason & Plot (Part 1)

Gunpowder, Treason & Plot (2004)  Director:  Gillies MacKinnon  Screenplay:  James McGovern  Starring: Robert Carlyle, Clémence Poésy, Tim McInnerny, Kevin McKidd, Paul Nicholls, Sira Stampe, Catherine McCormack, Tadeusz Pasternak, Steven Duffy, Richard Harrington, Emilia Fox, Sam Troughton, Richard Coyle, Michael Fassbender


History, as I have already mentioned, is not my strong suit (I was a science/geography girl). So when an historical drama tampers with the facts to such a degree that even I can spot it easily, it’s cause for concern.

Sometimes, of course, there are very good reasons for screenwriters to take historical liberties – particularly when the facts are in dispute and we don’t know for sure what happened anyway: such speculation is understandable and, dramatically speaking, essential. Sometimes, in adapting a true story, it is necessary to compress events just on practical grounds. And then there are the times when history is re-written for no good reason you can think of, which is the case with Gunpowder, Treason & Plot.

It’s hard to know what James McGovern was trying to do here. His extensive alterations suggests he had some particular agenda in mind, but the end product hardly supports this view. The story is built on a simple schema of Catholic vs Protestant. The Protestants are, one and all, depicted as lying, scheming murderers, which might suggest we’re supposed to side with, or at least sympathise with, the Catholics – except that counterbalancing this we have the fact that everything, and I mean everything, the Catholics do fails due to their own stupidity. Possibly we’re just supposed to curl our lips contemptuously at both factions.

For its DVD release, Gunpowder, Treason & Plot has been compressed into two uneven chapters, the first, shorter part dealing with the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the second part with that of her son, James VI of Scotland and I of England, leading up of course to the infamous failed plot of November 1605.

First the good news: this production is very well cast. Kevin McKidd gives us a romantic Bothwell (no wife-abandoning, possible rapist here), devoted to Mary, but ultimately too violently impulsive for his or anyone else’s good. Paul Nicholls as Darnley moves from superficially charming suitor to drunken, abusive husband with frightening conviction; and Catherine McCormack is a rather splendid Elizabeth I, although her appearances are disappointingly brief.

The French actress Clémence Poésy is not at all my idea of Mary, but she gives an interesting performance, although one somewhat hampered by the script’s desire to have Mary all things to all people. Essentially, what James McGovern does is declare Mary guilty of almost everything she’s ever been accused of, while providing her with excuses for her actions. I say “almost” because she is exonerated on the charge of an adulterous affair with her Italian advisor, David Rizzio…but then “wee David” is (rightly or wrongly) coded gay here, presumably by way of explanation of Mary’s failure to transgress.

Gunpowder, Treason & Plot begins with the death of Mary of Guise, and the return of her daughter to Scotland to claim her throne. Curiously, the script ignores the fact that she had been “Mary, Queen of Scots” since the ripe old age of 6 days. It also ignores her first marriage, and her time as Queen Consort of France, partly so that it can show her development/corruption from her beginnings as “a wee girl, a silly young thing”, and partly so that she can be given an horrendous wedding night after her marriage to Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley.

The description of Mary as “a silly young thing” issues from her illegimitate half-brother, James Stewart, here depicted as conspiring against Mary with Elizabeth from the outset, rather than turning against her after her marriage to an Englishman. Mary has already upset both religious factions by declaring her intention of allowing Scotland to remain Protestant, while continuing to practise her own faith, despite violent opposition to this from John Knox and his followers. James stirs the pot still further by goading the young Catholic Sir John Huntly into the murder of another prominent Protestant, Lord Gunn. Mary’s refusal to stay his execution turns the Catholics against her, too.

The Huntly episode is a fabrication. In fact, all the major events of Mary’s reign are jumbled and misordered here. We have Bothwell declaring his love for Mary and being rejected because of his “inferior” position, which is nonsense. There is, nevertheless, an odd attempt to depict Mary and Bothwell as star-crossed lovers,  their desires thwarted by Mary’s determination to bear a son who will be heir to the English throne. This possibility motivates her marriage to Darnley, whose conduct subsequent to the wedding justifies, in script terms, everything else that happens. Darnley soon degenerates into drunken violence, as Bothwell glowers from the sidelines.

James takes the opportunity to arrange, and involve Darnley in, the murder of David Rizzio, attempting to seize power in the wake of it. However, Bothwell manages to smuggle Mary out of the castle. The two of them raise an army, and drive James and his followers from Scotland. Bothwell again declares his feelings for Mary, who returns them, but rejects his advances on the grounds of her pregnancy. Bothwell is sent into a sort of exile after this, during which he works off his feelings by slaughtering the English, and by sending Elizabeth news of Mary’s pregnancy. The little detail of his own marriage, at which Mary was a guest, is never mentioned.

As with many such productions, Gunpowder, Treason & Plot does very well in its interior scenes, but fails in its exteriors due to a paucity of extras. This hurts the story at several points, but never so much as in the scene of “Mary’s army” and “James’s army”, in which there are rarely more than eight people in shot. Besides that, of course, there’s the fact that James had been driven out of Scotland a year before Rizzio’s murder, after leading a failed rebellion in the wake of Mary’s marriage. Darnley did arrange and participate in the murder, at which time Mary – in whose presence it was committed – was already seven months’ pregnant with the future King James.

In this storyline, a temporarily sober Darnley reappears from wherever after the birth of his son, and in his one decent action declares the child legitimate. Anything resembling reconciliation evaporates the next moment, however, as Mary tells Darnley bluntly that it is only for this that she has spared his life.

We get a rare bit of historical accuracy next, as Bothwell is seriously injured (an attempt on his life by James), and Mary rides to his camp to see him. The two become lovers (so much for “seriously injured”), and they continue their not-very-discreet affair after Bothwell’s resummons to Edinburgh. This is the last straw for Darnley, who has returned to his violent, drunken ways. Barred from Mary’s bedroom, one night he breaks in and tries to rape her. It is this that provokes Bothwell to propose his murder, to which Mary does not agree until Darnley threatens the baby – his reasoning being that if the child is dead, Mary will have to return to his bed to conceive another.

We make no bones here about Bothwell’s guilt, which I suppose is fair enough; but the depiction of the murder is fairly ridiculous. Having failed to kill Darnley by blowing him up with gunpowder (Subtle Foreshadowing!), Bothwell tracks him down and strangles him in front of witnesses. Friendly witnesses, but still… After this, it is not Bothwell’s mock-trial, acquittal, divorce and rapid marriage to Mary that turns Scotland against them – bad enough, you might have thought – but the fact that the two of them are openly living together! However, some time into the conflict (there’s never any sense here of the amount of time passed), Mary decides that enough men have died for her, and she turns herself over to the English, where she is imprisoned and her baby, literally torn from her arms, last seen in the ominous grasp of James…

[To be continued…]

One Comment to “Gunpowder, Treason & Plot (Part 1)”

  1. The facts are not mangled as badly as you think. Plus there is some artistic license that accounts for and amounts to a very similar turning point or outcome. In a short film like this, many details have to be left out or compressed. Overall, the film gives the viewer a reasonably accurate idea of what happened, though not all of the interesting facts could be included.

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